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Loch, Heather & Peat: Domhnall ÓBroin & Caithness Glass

15 January - 24 April 2011

Lochshiel Vases by Domhnall O'Broin, copyright Mark Hill Publishing

 This exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of Caithness Glass, highlighting the work of the company's first designer, Domhnall ÓBroin.  His designs and colour ranges were inspired by the local landscape of the remote north of Scotland.  The exhibition also features Caithness Glass ranges by later designers, including Colin Terris, Helen MacDonald, Alastair MacIntosh and Gordon Hendry.  

Featuring over 270 exhibits, all of the glass is from the Graham Cooley Collection, accompanied by a catalogue by Mark Hill.  The catalogue will be launched at the Museum on Saturday 12 March. 

The exhibition is travelling to Perth Museum & Art Gallery where it will be on show from 7 May until 1 October 2011.

The following is an abbreviated version of the exhibition text written by 20th century collectables expert Mark Hill.




Domhnall ÓBroin (1934 - 2005)

Domhnall O'Broin (b.1934 - d.2005)


Daniel Patrick O’Byrne was born in Waterford, Ireland.  His talent for art led to him being recommended for an apprenticeship at Waterford Glass, where he contributed to several classic ranges.  From 1952 to 1954 he travelled widely in Scandinavia and studied glass chemistry and design at Swedish companies.  These experiences allowed him to understand all of the processes involved in a modern glass factory.


ÓBroin graduated as Waterford’s first master engraver and cutter in April 1955, and was soon awarded a scholarship to study at Edinburgh College of Art.  Upon leaving Ireland, he adopted the Irish version of his name, Domhnall ÓBroin.


At Edinburgh he produced a number of cut and engraved pieces that show a strong Scandinavian influence.  He also produced a small body of work using methods similar to later studio glass makers.  After graduating in 1959, he studied glass chemistry at Sheffield University.







Caithness Glass - the 1960s

Caithness Glass label, 1960s, copyright Graham Cooley

In 1958, Robin Sinclair, later Viscount Thurso, was looking for a way to provide work, skills and income for the population of rural Caithness.  After visiting a small glass factory when on holiday in Sweden, he decided to found a glass company.  ÓBroin was recommended to Sinclair and the two became friends.


The challenge of founding a glass factory in such a remote location as Wick was considerable.  ÓBroin and Sinclair worked extremely hard to find funding and backers.  The company opened for business in 1961, with ÓBroin as designer and production director.  Unskilled locals were trained by experienced Italian and Austrian glassmakers.


ÓBroin’s early designs were heavily influenced by fashionable, modern Scandinavian designs, which were simple yet highly effective.  Colours echoed the Scottish landscape, and included Peat, Moss green, Loch blue and Heather, and range names were taken from local villages or beauty spots.


As the company developed, demands and challenges changed.  A serious disagreement with the Board led ÓBroin to resign in 1966.  He left for the US, never to return to Caithness.






Caithness Glass - After ÓBroin

Caithness Glass vases, copyright Mark Hill Publishing

Charles Orr was appointed as lead designer in ÓBroin’s place.  He introduced a small number of new designs that followed ÓBroin’s Scandinavian aesthetic.  However, his largest contribution was the striped ‘Oban’ range of 1969.  A new factory was opened at Oban to produce the range, which not only became successful, but changed the look of Caithness glass forever.  


An engraving department was opened in 1968, with Colin Terris being taken on to run it.  A Royal Warrant was granted in the same year.  Paperweights were added to the company’s ranges in 1969, initiated by Paul Ysart and formalised with Terris's abstract ‘Planets’ range.  Orr left in the early 1970s and Terris became the dominant force in design for the next 20 years.


New ranges followed ÓBroin’s style, but were also designed to display the increasingly popular engraved and sandblasted designs.  Many of ÓBroin’s designs were also still in production, even into the 2000s. Over the next two decades, the company acquired a factory at King’s Lynn, built one at Perth, and rebuilt the factory at Wick.







Caithness Glass - from the 1980s to the 2000s

Cadenza range by Colin Terris, Caithness Glass, copyright Mark Hill Publishing

Under Terris, paperweights became the dominant force of the business and influenced blown designs with increasingly complex techniques.  However, not all ranges were complex and some were aimed squarely at the lucrative giftware market.  


The 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of creativity based around the importance of the designer.  Terris headed a burgeoning design department that included Helen MacDonald, Gordon Hendry and Alastair MacIntosh.  Exports to the US market grew strong, particularly the engraved ranges.


From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the company changed ownership a number of times.  In 2006, it was acquired by Dartington Glass and production was moved to Crieff, Perthshire.


For fifty years ÓBroin’s and Sinclair’s original aims were fulfilled.  Despite its current smaller state, it is heartening that this world class glass company from Scotland still survives.  So many of its competitors have not.